The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blaming alleged fraud was always Trump’s central campaign strategy

Bill Stepien watches President Donald Trump speak at his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., on Election Day in November 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP)

By July 2020, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign was in trouble. Polling showed that he was trailing Joe Biden badly, beyond the margin he had overcome four years prior. His effort to relaunch in-person events with a rally in Oklahoma was a debacle, with turnout falling far short of expectations. So it did not come as a surprise when Trump shook up his campaign team, demoting campaign manager Brad Parscale and elevating his deputy, Bill Stepien.

Unlike Parscale, Stepien was a veteran. He had worked for former New Jersey governor Chris Christie until his involvement in the infamous Bridgegate scandal prompted Christie to throw him overboard. Stepien had worked for Trump in 2016, too, brought onboard that August during another shake-up. The new title he earned in July 2020 seemed to suggest that a slow effort to steer Trump toward experience and professionalism had finally borne fruit.

But it took very little time for the reality to become apparent. Within hours of Stepien’s appointment, it became very clear that Trump’s actual campaign strategy — sowing seeds of doubt about any election loss — would remain his team’s central focus.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

Trump had been talking about voter fraud for years by then. In October 2016, he claimed that the only way he would lose the state of Pennsylvania would be if he were the victim of fraud — a ridiculous assertion that nonetheless proved prophetic. Of course, he wasn’t talking about mail-in ballot fraud then but in-person fraud — people voting, going out and putting on a different hat, and coming in to vote again. It didn’t make much sense, and there was no evidence for it, but it didn’t matter. The point was that Trump wanted to be able to blame his loss on something other than himself and long-standing rumors about voting in big cities offered him that out.

Then he won … but only the electoral vote. So he started claiming that there had been fraud in California that cost him the popular vote (a ludicrous claim for which there was no evidence presented) or fraud in states such as New Hampshire that led to a narrow loss. Fraud claims and Trump losses always went hand in hand. When a Republican activist in North Carolina was caught committing electoral fraud, Trump shrugged. When, however, a guy named Gregg Phillips declared that Trump had been the victim of millions of fraudulent votes — another ludicrous claim for which there was no evidence presented — Trump broadcast it widely.

By early 2020, Trump refocused his claims. He had paid little attention to alleged mail-in ballot fraud before the pandemic, but states’ decisions to expand remote access to voting that year gave Trump an opportunity to sow a new field of doubt. By early April, he was already claiming that absentee-ballot fraud was widespread and a dire threat, using the idea to pillory Democratic governors.

He wasn’t subtle about his actual concern. During an interview with “Fox & Friends” that month, Trump complained that Democrats were seeking “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” More mail-in ballots meant danger to Republicans and to himself, Trump thought — so he worked hard to disparage the voting method.

By July, this pattern was already well-established. So what was remarkable when Trump’s team followed up his elevation of Stepien with new claims about the risk of mail-in voting was simply how goofy the claims were. A mail truck that caught fire, which White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to imply, was some sort of violent conspiracy? Republican primary voters being initially sent Democratic primary ballots before getting the right ones? The obvious point was to create a miasma of skepticism around mail-in ballots, not to actually show any fraud.

As Election Day approached, states worked hard to offset the doubt that Trump was hoping to elevate. The president, unchecked, continued to make dubious claims about electoral security; state officials continued to reinforce the security and safety of mail-in ballots. Asked at one point if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost, Trump claimed that he would only lose because of mail-in ballots.

“I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said. Then: “We want to have — get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very trans — we’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly; there’ll be a continuation.”

By the last month of voting, it was very obvious what would happen: Democrats would vote more heavily by mail and, in some states, those votes would be counted more slowly in the hours and days after polls closed. The term “red mirage” began to circulate, referring to the likely prospect of a Trump/Republican lead fading as those more-Democratic votes were added to the tally. And as that term began to circulate, so did concern about how Trump would try to exploit his slow-moving loss.

The red mirage is a concept that explains how in-person voting in the 2020 election initially appeared to give Republicans a lead before all votes were counted. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Two days before the election, Axios reported that Trump had a plan: If the election was close enough, he would simply declare victory before the voting was done. He would establish himself as the victor rhetorically, making it harder for Biden and the Democrats to push back. After all, he had successfully worked to convince Republicans that mail-in ballots were corrupted. This was simply the next step in the same dishonesty.

When the Axios report emerged, Trump’s team tried to quash it. Trump would only declare victory when his inevitable win occurred, they assured Americans. But, again, Trump was never beholden to what his staff thought or wanted to do.

Polls closed on Election Day, and the red mirage appeared. In the middle of the night, Trump walked to a lectern in the White House and made an announcement about how insurmountable his eventually surmounted leads were in a number of states.

“This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country,” Trump said of the vote counting that was still very much underway. “We were getting ready to win this election — frankly, we did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity, for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation.”

Trump telegraphed what he was going to claim. Reporters learned what he was going to claim. Trump then made the claim. None of it was a surprise.

What all of this reinforces, of course, is that Trump’s claims of fraud were independent of the actual votes. Trump said there would be fraud before anyone voted and then said there was fraud after those votes came in. He was simply doing what he did in 2016, but on a bigger scale, offsetting his loss with claims about how he didn’t really lose at all. In the year-plus since the election, he has offered no credible evidence of rampant fraud, constantly shifting his evidence as needed. (The proprietor of his latest obsession? Phillips, once again.) His supporters believe he won and need only hints of evidence to remain convinced that he did.

But this also suggests that Trump knows he didn’t. Speaking in November, his former aide Alyssa Farah said that Trump had told her he knew he had lost shortly after the election — but also that he had perhaps come to believe his own nonsense. In the first prime-time hearing of the House select committee investigating the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump’s attempt to retain power after the 2020 election, evidence was shown of other times during which Trump had been informed that he didn’t win the election.

Stepien was scheduled to appear before the committee’s hearing Monday morning, before he withdrew citing a family emergency. It was expected that Stepien would bolster the idea that Trump should have known that he lost the election. He may still offer that testimony.

It is largely redundant. Trump made very obvious why he had spent years amplifying claims about voter fraud, and he and his team continued to amplify those claims even after Stepien joined. Any rationality Stepien brought to the table was irrelevant to what Trump wanted to do and say. Even when his staff insisted he wouldn’t declare victory on Election Day, Trump couldn’t resist.

Trump’s fraud claims were his most successful campaign rhetoric, after all, and the credit for them was all his own.